Prague, 9 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- According to the timetable for Iraq’s transition to democracy, the country’s first constitution following the ouster of Saddam Hussein by a U.S.-led coalition is supposed to be approved by 15 August.
But for now, the document remains in the hands of a drafting committee, and deadlocks over some of the toughest issues make it uncertain whether the deadline can be met.
Among the tough issues remaining are how much autonomy the constitution will give to the Kurdish-administered region in northern Iraq, and what to do about requests from some Shi'a parties for a similar degree of autonomy in southern Iraq.
Mahmud Uthman, a Kurdish member of the constitutional committee and independent parliamentarian, told RFE/RL from Baghdad that the differences over autonomy are particularly sharp regarding southern Iraq.
“The Arab Sunnis say they understand the particularities of the Kurdistan region and their federalism because it has been there, it is a reality. But they don’t understand -- and they don’t agree -- to the principle of federalism for the rest of Iraq, especially for the south," Uthman said. "They say they are afraid this will lead to fragmentation of the country, and it may lead to having regions under the influence of Iran.”
It is unclear how widespread the desire for autonomy is among Iraq’s Shi'a population because no polls have yet put the question to the public. However, many Shi'a are reported to view a powerful central government in Baghdad as a potential threat, given their experience with repression under the Saddam Hussein regime.
Tied to the federalism question is how to equitably share the revenues from Iraq’s oil fields, which are mostly in the south and north of the country.
For Arab Sunnis, whose central region has no oil, the issue is how to ensure that their neighbors would not hoard Iraq’s oil revenues if they get broad powers of self-rule.
A particularly sensitive issue is the future of the major oil producing center of Kirkuk in northern Iraq. The Kurds want to incorporate the city and its surrounding oil fields into the Kurdish region, but the move is opposed by Sunni Arabs and by Turkomans living in the ethnically mixed area.
Another issue bedeviling the drafting of the constitution is the extent to which Islamic law should be the source of the country’s legal code.
Shi'a religious party representatives on the constitutional committee want Islamic law to be the sole source. But the Kurdish bloc, as well as secular parties from Iraq’s other communities, want Islamic law to be just one source among others -- including Western legal systems.
Othman described the differences between the Kurdish bloc and the Shi'a religious parties this way: "They say Islam is the main source of legislation. We say it is one of the main sources, not the main source. And [they say] there should be no laws issued if they contradict the principles of Islam. We say, 'OK, let’s write that, but with it we should write also there should be no laws that contradict the principles of democracy and human rights and the rights of the individual, also.'"
The continuing differences make it impossible to predict whether the constitutional draft will be presented to the National Assembly -- and approved by it -- on time.
But U.S. and Iraqi officials are pressing the committee hard to meet the mid-August deadline. That is because they regard completing the draft constitution on schedule as critical for building public confidence in Iraq’s democratic process.
Michael Clark is director of the International Policy Institute at King’s College in London, where he works on state-building issues.
He put the stakes this way: “This deadline is absolutely critical because it is not only an important deadline in itself, but it is the single most important moment that could put an end to the vacuum of government that has actually been in Iraq. The problem that Iraq faces is not that everyone is rushing towards a civil war. They’re not. But there are lots of tendencies toward civil war that are apparent. And the longer this governmental vacuum lasts, the more those tendencies are likely to increase.”
Under Iraq’s Transitional Administrative Law approved by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council a year ago, failure to meet the deadline would mandate the dissolution of the current interim government.
But the dissolution of the government could be avoided if the National Assembly voted by a two-thirds' majority to amend the Transitional Administrative Law to extend the deadline.
It is unclear how any such delay might set back other state-building milestones set for later this year.
The milestones include putting the document to a national referendum in October. If the constitution passes that test, Iraq is due to hold a nationwide election for its first constitutional government in December.See also:
"Iraq: Islamist Women Speak Out On Constitution"